Our Gospel today highlights for us a number of false judgments, a type we are all familiar with. The people are judging other people over there. People who are not like us. Us versus them. They are judgments that allow us to define ourselves by saying, Who are we? We are not like them.
Now, as soon as we say this out loud, we realise how pointless such a statement is. It tells us nothing about ourselves, and it does not help the people we are talking about. Because if we are not like them, why should they listen to us? But it is interesting to see how Jesus deals with it. He judges the people who tell him these things. He says, Don’t kid yourself that you’re any different.
Still, though, is Jesus’s act any different from the people he is criticising? I think it is different on a couple of fronts; namely, its authority and its motivation. And both the authority and the motivation come from the fact that his judgment is inseparable from mercy. Our first reading and the story of Moses gives us a few clues as to why this is so.
Our first reading is one of the climaxes in the book of Exodus. Basically, you can look at Israel’s deliverance from Egypt as a two stage process. First, Moses finds God and is delivered. Then, because Moses has found God, Israel finds God through Moses and is delivered. The two stages mirror each other because Moses first has to go through what Israel must go through before he can lead them, before he can mediate God’s word to them.
Moses is born a Hebrew but raised an Egyptian. He does not know who he is, caught between two peoples. He tries to stand up for his fellow Hebrew by killing an Egyptian. He thinks that saying he is not an Egyptian automatically makes him a Hebrew. But then he tries to judge between two Hebrews and they reject his authority. It is as if the Hebrews say, who are you to judge us? You’re not like us. You don’t even know us. You live in the palace and we do the hard work. Don’t think just because you killed an Egyptian that you are suddenly one of us.
So, Moses realises that he doesn’t belong anywhere. He is no longer at home with the Egyptians – Pharaoh in fact tried to kill him forcing him to flee – and he is not welcome among the Hebrews. He does a runner and so becomes a stranger in a strange land: indeed, that is how he sees his future: it is the name he gives his son. It is only then that he comes across the burning bush. It is only then that God speaks to him, telling him to act as his messenger to Pharaoh and to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. It is only when Moses really understands the sufferings of the people that he can talk to them. Now, not only does he have something real to say, but he has the authority of experience. He is one with the people he is talking to.
We can see the same in Jesus’s life. Not only doesn’t he point the finger at other people – we only have to remember the woman caught in adultery, he actually becomes one with sinners. He lives our life, faces our temptations, struggles like us. More than that, he suffers death on a cross. Our death. And in doing so, he shows us the truth of our lives. But he does so out of love, out of a desire to be one with us. He is not talking about us and them. There is only us. The reason he speaks is out of love, and out of a believable love. So, we can hear him. And the truth he speaks is always one of communion. The difference between his judgment and that of the people in today’s Gospel is like that saying: We’re not stuck in traffic. We are traffic.
Now, this is hard. It is much harder to pay attention to my own life than it is to judge others. Anyone who has tried to pray knows this. Indeed, anyone who tries to live honestly knows this. Our lives are normally mysteries to us.
At the same time, though, it is only the one who has had a go at making sense of their own lives who is worth listening to. And the funny thing is, the more we focus on our own lives, the less likely we are to judge others. We too find our judgment, our understanding of truth, becoming more and more closely bound to a desire to be merciful. Which, again, makes any judgement more likely to be useful because more likely to be heard and vice versa.
Today, then, let us pray for the courage to face up to our own lives, so that we might better help our neighbours through authentic, merciful judgments that aim at communion.